Ira Chaleff Articles

Ira Chaleff Articles:


Moral Courage & Intelligent Disobedience

by Ted Thomas and Ira Chaleff
Winter, 2017 – InterAgency Journal
Arthur D. Simons Center for Interagency Cooperation

The military needs men and women who have courage–the physical courage to go into battle, to overcome fear in the face of bodily injury or death, mental pain, and lifelong disabilities. Militaries run on physical courage. Without it, they run from a fight and surrender. Many sources quote Aristotle as saying, “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.” Courage is a primary virtue, as all other virtues require it.

There is another type of courage the military needs, but it is hard to measure or even define –moral courage. The following words of Robert F. Kennedy are as salient today as they were in June of 1966 when he spoke them in Cape Town, South Africa. “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.” Bravery in battle is needed, but so is the courage to stand up for what is right and against what is immoral, unethical, or illegal.

A critical application of moral courage is knowing when and how to disobey–which can be thought of as intelligent disobedience. This involves an ability to work within the system to maintain standards and uphold moral values. Organizational culture and operational pressures can sometimes cause the values of people to become blurred when the mission becomes more important than virtues. These can take us down the slippery slope of ends justifying means. Good people and good Soldiers can do bad things in these situations. An organizational emphasis on personal accountability for our actions, regardless of situational pressures, will support the courage needed to do what is morally and ethically right. This article will make the case that moral courage, including intelligent disobedience when warranted, should be taught and encouraged to ensure those in the follower role have the disciplined initiative to disobey orders when appropriate and to recommend alternatives that uphold professional military core values.First, we need to define the terms we are using to understand their importance…

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No, You Probably Shouldn’t Follow Every Order From Your Boss

August 25, 2016 – Excellence in Government

To protect the reputation of your agency and its leaders you need to know when and how to disobey. You read that correctly. There is a high level competency called intelligent disobedience. It is rarely taught in leadership development programs. It should be. Here’s why.

No leader is going to give correct orders all the time. Sooner or later they will issue or approve a poorly thought out initiative. Why? There are many possible reasons. They have been given skewed data, the analysis is faulty, they are under pressure from powerful constituencies, they are tired. It happens. The question is what do the people who receive the order do?

I was teaching a course for the Office of Personnel Management on Leader-Follower dynamics based on my earlier book The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders. I asserted that most of the time it makes sense to comply with orders, but sometimes it is wrong or dangerous to do so. A mid-level careerist said she had an example of that under the table. Huh? That got my attention.


There was a dog under the table, she explained, that was being trained to be a guide dog for a blind person. For the first 18 months of its life, the dog lived with her family and learned to obey all the commands it would need to know. After that it would go to a higher level trainer to teach it intelligent disobedience. If the dog received a command that would cause harm to the team (of leader and dog) it must disobey that command. For example, the dog would not proceed into oncoming traffic, travel through areas where storms had toppled power lines, or walk into a construction site. If the dog could not differentiate between commands to obey and commands to disobey, it could not become a guide dog.

I suggest that this is equally a test for fitness to be a senior government manager. It is also much harder to do than it sounds. The pressures of hierarchy, culture, and leadership style can overwhelm a sense for doing the right thing. Yet failing to do the right thing ultimately lets down stakeholders, agencies and senior executives themselves. We watch in pain as agencies are skewered in congressional hearings, in the media and in costly legal proceedings for ill-advised actions individuals took or failed to take. Someone in the chain of command could have prevented that with the early use of intelligent disobedience.

Creating a culture that understands the place of intelligent disobedience in risk management and mitigation takes time. But there are principles to begin the discussion.

  1. Understand that the social pressures to conform and obey are baked in and powerful.
  2. Recognize that the number of people who touch any major decision is so large that it is hard to feel personally accountable.
  3. Despite this, each individual is personally accountable and cannot claim to be just following orders if executing the order would result in harm.
  4. The formal channels for expressing concern are necessary but often insufficient.
  5. The group needs to step back and create norms of communication to guard against groupthink and pre-empt inappropriate obedience.

Lessons that we can import from guide dog training include: training together before a danger is encountered; pausing before determining the safety of an order; “counter-pulling” if the leader is about to step directly into the path of danger; generating alternatives to safely achieve goals; appreciating appropriate disobedience. These save lives, careers and agency reputations.

Obedience is in the DNA of hierarchies. The whole point of a hierarchy is to determine who can give orders to whom in service of the mission. This arrangement avoids endless conflict and paralysis and allows us to get things done. Suggesting there are times when obedience is not the correct response to a situation flies in the face of this solid wiring.

Yet, it has been observed that if you want to do in your boss, do everything that he or she orders exactly as you are told. Sooner or later you will get a bad order and executing it will make the boss look very bad. So it is in the interest of leaders to create and support cultures that value both great execution and skillful push back when each is warranted.

We think of dogs as paragons of loyalty. We can think of guide dogs as the best of man’s best friends: they serve, support and protect. Both their obedience and disobedience are acts of loyalty. When needed, intelligent disobedience in public service is also an act of loyalty to the leadership of our agencies and to the citizens we serve.

Ira Chaleff is president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates in Washington, D.C.Keynotes

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Ira Chaleff Articles: What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Guide Dogs

July 12, 2016 – Entrepreneur

… Intelligent Disobedience is a term used in guide-dog training. You may be wondering: What can that possibly have to do with entrepreneurship?…

… If a dog receives a command that, if executed, would harm the team of human and dog, it must not obey. For example, if the daily walk to the train station is today impassable because of construction or because of wires and trees that were downed by a storm, obeying the usual command to go forward could have nasty results. By not obeying, the dog prevents falls, bruises or even electrocution. But is that enough?…

… The dog is sighted and agile. It could easily slip under a downed branch or wire, or leap over an open ditch. The human can’t. The dog, now assuming the creative leadership of the team, needs to find a path they can both successfully use to get safely to the goal.

How many skills of an entrepreneur did the dog just display? Let’s distill these into a simple template of entrepreneurship.

  1. Know the goal.
  2. Develop a plan for achieving the goal.
  3. Be clear on whom your plan is serving and what they need from you.
  4. Dry run the plan, and work out the kinks.
  5. Launch the enterprise.
  6. Be prepared for unexpected roadblocks and dangers.
  7. Be agile in finding ways around these.
  8. Make sure your responses work for both your company and your clients.
  9. Based on the trust engendered, be willing to explore new paths.
  10. Make sure your team knows when to obey established procedure and when to break rules that don’t fit shifting terrain.

It is well-known that the entrepreneur’s advantage is the ability to learn and adapt more quickly than established entities. As you grow, maintain that advantage by valuing Intelligent Disobedience.

We can turn once more to the guide dog as a metaphor for how to do this.

Consistency of praise is needed for both appropriate obedience and appropriate disobedience. With consistent reinforcement the dog develops an increasingly sophisticated capacity for solving complex problems. This is easily destroyed by sending inconsistent messages that leave the dog confused and uncertain. If that occurs, fitness for the job is lost, and the dog is dropped from the guide dog program.

If you are the entrepreneur, it is your company. So if you wake up grumpy, you may feel entitled to express displeasure today for what you expressed approval yesterday. You may get away with a little bit of this. Steve Jobs apparently got away with a lot of this. You’re not Steve Jobs though. When a member of your team diverges from a usual procedure with well thought out reasons, don’t blast them because you would have made a different call. All you will achieve is obedience. That is not the stuff of great entrepreneurial cultures.

Challenge your own tendency to become an authority figure, who expects obedience. When your people challenge your thinking on a subject, resist defensiveness, and adopt a genuinely curious attitude about what they are saying. Realize that your own sight may be impaired and that they, like the guide dog, are helping you avoid pitfalls you do not see, and discover new paths that lead to your goals.

In its highest expression, Intelligent Disobedience is the refusal to allow our imagination to be locked into existing thought patterns. Make it a core value in your culture, and entrepreneurship will continue to thrive.

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Ira Chaleff Articles: Blink. Think. Choice. Voice.

Teaching kids to disobey (intelligently)

January 20, 2016 –

When you place your children in the care of other adults – day care providers, teachers, coaches, religious clerics, camp counselors – you trust they will be safe but you know you can’t be totally sure. When a supposedly trusted authority figure tells a child to do something wrong it is a confusing and potentially dangerous experience.

You prepare your children to not get into cars with strangers or walk off with a stranger at the mall. How do you prepare them for the rare but complex situation when a legitimate authority figure tells them to do something they shouldn’t?

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